Tad Friend's family is nothing if not illustrious: his father was president of College, and at Smith his mother came in second in a poetry contest judged by W.H. Auden -- to Sylvia Plath. For centuries, Wasps like his ancestors dominated American life. But then, in the '60s, their fortunes began to fall.
As a young man, Tad noticed that his family tree, for all its glories, was full of alcoholics, depressives, and reckless eccentrics. Yet his identity had already been shaped by the family's age-old traditions and expectations.
Part memoir, part family history, and part cultural study of the long swoon of the American Wasp, Cheerful Money is a captivating examination of a cultural crack-up and a man trying to escape its wreckage.
"Grievances in my family are like underground coal fires," Friend confides, "hard to detect and nearly impossible to extinguish." But a remembrance of his mother that appeared in the New Yorker brought many of those tensions to the surface; shortly afterward, his father accused him of being "a prisoner of Freudianism" for dwelling on the theme of emotional distance. Nevertheless, Friend pushes forward, combining family history and memoir as he recounts his youthful efforts to prove "my family was not my fate" and break away from the "cast of mind" circumscribed by his WASP upbringing the firm handshakes, the summer homes, the university clubs. Friend knows exactly how privileged he is and recognizes that readers won't easily feel sorry for someone who can spend more than $160,000 on therapy. ("My birthright in wherewithal," he quips, "seemed to me almost perfectly balanced by my birthright in repression.") Instead of asking for sympathy, he works at showing how his efforts at emotional integration have begun to pay off, including the relationship with his own wife and children, in a story of cross-generational frustration and reconciliation that transcends class boundaries. 8 pages of b&w photo.
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Insider glimpse of a waspy world. Well written.